Meg Mason on Sisterhood and Sorrow and Bliss
One of the most original and brilliantly realised novels published in 2021 thus far, Meg Mason's Sorrow and Bliss tackles themes of mental health and family dynamics with a wicked wit and tremendous empathy. In this exclusive piece, Meg describes how important sisterhood is to the tone of the novel and recommends her favourite books containing sisterly relationships.
There are some things you set out to do as an author, beginning on a novel. Then, things you do by accident, not realising you have until it’s pointed out by another person, once the novel is finished.
When I started Sorrow and Bliss, I meant to write a love story that would follow the protagonists, Martha and Patrick, from their first meeting as teenagers to the seeming-end of their marriage two decades later. Somewhere along the way, it became as much about mental illness. Not on purpose, although in that case I realise before it was done that the impact of illness of the sufferer, in this case Martha, and Patrick and everyone close to her, had become the axis around which the love story turns.
But I had no idea that Sorrow and Bliss is, more than both those things, an ode to sisterhood, until it was published first in Australia last year and one or two readers, then quite a few more readers and now, it feels, all the readers observed that Martha’s relationship with her sister Ingrid is the true heart of it. And that, while Martha is the main character, Ingrid might be the best. Although, privately, I would defend Martha as charming to my last breath, I can see now that Ingrid is the easiest to like, the funniest, the most constant and, as so intensely loyal to her sister even when she seems not to deserve it, the reason to suspect that Martha, as the narrator, isn’t giving us a complete picture of herself.
I do not have a sister but according to such kind readers who do, the two of them capture something essential within the sister-relationship. As fifteen months apart in age, allies in and survivors of a chaotic childhood (artist parents, no money, falling-down house, four-day parties), sharer of in-jokes, in-each-other’s-bed chatters and continuous texters, maybe it’s a sort of intrinsic understanding that can’t really be described by the ones inside it, or understood by those outside. Patrick, an only child, tries to explain to Martha at one point what it was like to meet them both, the first time, but can only say “how inscrutable our relationship had been to him, for years afterwards. He said, until then, he hadn’t known it was possible for two separate people to be that connected. From looking alike and talking alike and, in his memory, never being apart, it felt like there was a sort of force field around us, impenetrable to other people. Were there matching sweatshirts at one point, with something weird written on the front?”
Readers who, like me, have spent their lives wishing for a sister have described Ingrid as the one they’d have wanted if wishes got granted, equal parts devoted and foul-mouthed, an endless smack-talker about their parents, someone who is always on our side, and who bought those matching sweatshirts because “they were £9 and had the word UNIVERSITY printed on the front, which, Ingrid said, made it clear to people that we’d been educated at tertiary level but weren’t so desperate for approval we needed them to know where.”
How much the novel’s sister narrative was not on purpose, how much credit I can’t take credit for any of the above if it’s true, is proven really by the fact Ingrid didn’t exist in my plan for the novel, updated once mental health had come into things.
My intention, then, was to show what chronic, undiagnosed illness costs someone like Martha, who first experienced it at 17 when, in her words “a little bomb went off in my brain”. That is, by 40, her career, her friendships, nearly Ingrid, nearly Patrick. I wanted to show how it informed and made poor her decisions, all the ways she was judged for her behaviour, without ever being able to convince anyone, truly, that it wasn’t her, it was the illness. Most of all, I wanted to show that someone who is sick cannot just pull themselves together as characters in the novel, and readers less sympathetic to Martha’s condition, the ones who say they just want to shake her sometimes, feel they ought.
Ingrid, on the other hand, got the career she wanted, a functional marriage, a family home and four children. Martha, in my plan, would hold up her sister’s life as a sort of compare-and-contrast. And then we would find out that Ingrid was not real, except in Martha’s imagination. “Ingrid” was simply the person Martha knew she would have been, with the things she would have got, had that little bomb never gone off.
Thank goodness I realised before it was too late that Gail Honeyman had already done a version of that, much better than I ever could, in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. And, even more, that I recalled at some crucial moment reading Jeanette Winterson explain, once, why she had to put the character Elsie Norris into Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as the sort of surrogate mother to the dear, lonely protagonist. There was no Elsie Norris in Winterson’s own life, on which the novel is based. It was much worse than that, I remembered her saying. Readers would not have been able to stand it.
The same would have been true of a sisterless Sorrow and Bliss, I think –instead of the novel it’s turned out to be, a rather bleak catalogue of Martha’s periodic depressions and disappointments had Ingrid not forced her way in (as Ingrid would) and insisted on being at the centre of things; fictionally, caring for her sister, helping her get up and keep going, making her laugh and, functionally, demanding that we look past Martha’s unreliable narration and notice her bravery, her acute empathetic to strangers and readiness to apologise, her desperation to be better and how different she is by the end. To see her really, the way Ingrid does – someone who would, despite everything, hold onto a sister’s gifted sweatshirt for so long that, by the end of this accidental love story, “NIVERS and a spray of sticky white bits was the only thing left across the chest.”
The Best Sisterly Lit
Late-night bedroom chats, shared hairbrush, simultaneous eye-rolling about their mother, double wedding. Pride and Prejudice’s Jane and Lizzy are the sibling-lit standard.
Sisters who bicker will see themselves represented in fiction by Cassandra and Rose, in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
Twin sisters, divided by circumstance, Desiree and Stella in The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
Technically not sisters but major sister energy, Fanny and Linda from Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. (See also, the mob of girl-cousins in the Cazelet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard, hard-recommended by Hilary Mantel.)
For the would-be sister-haver, the six siblings who fold in the only-child protagonist, in Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido.
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